In mid-May 9-month pregnant Rita Devi* was in labor pains but she couldn’t find a maternity service in the Indian mega city of Mumbai able to help her deliver her baby. Most were shut out of fear of COVID-19.
After six hours of looking, Devi was brought by her younger brother to the church-run Holy Family Hospital.
There Devi was tended to by Dr Beena Madhavath, a Catholic nun and senior gynaecologist, who managed a normal delivery saving the young woman’s life and that of her baby girl.
While this was a typical case given the 50-year-old nun’s specialty, much of her energy since the pandemic has been treating COVID-19 patients. Now she is busy leading the hospital’s 18 Catholic nuns to treat daily more than 300 patients, most of them COVID-19 patients.
The majority of the patients are treated at the hospital’s casualty ward while those with severe complications are taken to hospital’s special COVID-19 wards.
During the week Sister Beena stays at the hospital treating patients and resting when she can in a sleep area adjacent to the hospital’s main building.
“I have forgotten what rest really means. We have to remain alert on our toes in order to meet any eventuality. The virus has taken us all by storm,” Sister Beena told LiCAS.news.
More than 110,000 people in Mumbai have been infected with the virus and more than 6,000 people have been killed by it in the city. Infections nationwide are now more than 1.5 million with a death toll over 34,000.
The nun from the Congregation of the Ursuline Sisters of Mary Immaculate has experienced and seen harrowing things over the past several months.
On one night four patients complaining of breathlessness in their homes were brought to the hospital’s casualty ward but were dead by the time they arrived.
Sister Beena spoke of one COVID-19 patient who, after been given oxygen felt better, and insisted on going home.
“Two hours later, he was brought back dead to the hospital,” the nun said.
“In the past, most of the major diseases have caught us unaware be it HIV or swine flu but this new coronavirus pandemic has had a global effect. It has changed the entire world order and none of us were totally prepared,” she said.
Being on the frontline and treating COVID-19 patients has been the most challenging thing the nun has done in her 25-year career.
“Wearing PPE, N 95 masks, goggles and face shield, gives a suffocating feeling to most of us. Many a time, the misting of protective goggles causes blurring of vision,” Sister Beena said.
“After donning all the gear, we have to speak loudly in order to be audible, and it becomes very tiring to communicate with patients and other team members in the medical team, resulting in frequent fatigue,” the nun said.
“The weather in Mumbai is so hot and humid that we are drenched in sweat within minutes after wearing the PPE which makes it really hard to move around,” she added.
“With all these difficulties, no wonder the front-line warriors of COVID-19 are feeling exhausted and stressed out.”
But of course, it’s worth it. The joy of seeing the patients getting well evaporates the fatigue and pain, she said while offering the example of a 89-year-old COVID-19 patient who recovered.
“He was here in the hospital for more than three weeks and we had quite a bonding. I was relieved when with a smile he went back home,” Sister Beena said.
It has also been an intense period of prayer for the nun.
“Surrendering to God’s will formed the core of my prayers. That is the reason that I didn’t feel fearful and could work tirelessly in the hospital. God gave me strength. That was the power of prayer,” she said.
The nun, who hails from southern Indian, is optimistic that in six months time life will return to normal. She added that the disease has affected both rich and poor while shocking the entire human race at the same time.
“We have learnt that whatever plans humans have can tumble at any moment. Maybe in a post-COVID world it will be more humane in terms of love, peace, justice and harmony,” she said.
*Not her real name for privacy reasons.